Creative workshops – Episode 1 – How to organize good workshops?


Marta Haida
UX Designer
Marta Haida

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.”

                                                                                                    — Michael Jordan


Do you remember working in groups when you were a student? Every morning we would enter the classroom, chat with friends for a while or flirt with a favorite boy or girl, and then the first lesson would begin. Teachers would either conduct the lessons in the form of a lecture or organize group work. There were students who loved working as a team, while others hated it. I clearly remember what it was like – some kids were brawling instead of doing anything constructive, and then there were the more ambitious ones who ended up working in behalf of the whole group. There was always something that didn’t work. Why didn’t the teachers encourage everybody to generate ideas? Why couldn’t they make students’ work more efficient? The answer is simple – they didn’t know how to.

What are creative workshops?

It’s not a solution to lock people up in a room and ask them to be creative. The key  is to organize their work and encourage them to think. The same happens in IT. We may be like kids at school during teamwork. Everybody has a different character and working style, some are introverts and others love to be in  the center of attention. But one thing hasn’t changed – it’s always hard to make people talk about their thoughts. Workshops are a great opportunity to engage different people to work on a project. During workshops, participants gather ideas about a specific topic and in a specified time together, in one creative process. They are like a football team shooting goals for a championship cup. They have different levels of competence and knowledge but they still want to achieve the same goal. Two (or more) heads are always better than one!

A facilitator is your guide

The workshop participants are the most important because they generate ideas and directly influence  the outcome. However, every team needs a  coach who leads them in the right direction. This is the  role of a facilitator – a person whose main task is to help a group reach a common goal by supporting the participants and activating them to think and share their ideas.

The facilitator’s tasks

A good parent always has a lot to do when raising a child. So does a facilitator when conducting workshops:

  1. He’s responsible for the  whole workshop process and its elements like the methodology, tools, relationship between participants, and establishing the workshop rules.
  2. He defines a topic and a goal for the workshops. Without them the participants may ‘go with the  flow’ and discuss issues which are not connected with the expected results and make the workshops a mess.
  3. He plans the workshops, invites participants and informs them about the agenda and time frames. Time management is key because participants know exactly when and how long they can brainstorm an idea.
  4. He extracts ideas and knowledge from participants, activates quiet ones, and tries to reign in loud people (without stopping them!).
  5. He’s neutral like Switzerland; he doesn’t judge and his listening skills are on a high level.
  6. He summarizes every  part of the workshop and informs people where there’s  more to do.

How to prepare and organize workshops?

The key to  good workshops is to prepare them properly. I’ll divide workshop preparation into four parts:

  1. Planning
  2. Participants’ relations research
  3. Checking the venue
  4. Tools and food preparation

A good plan is the  beginning. A facilitator knows what the topic of the workshop is and what participants should get as a result. He elaborates the whole process and invents exercises which will help people generate ideas, collect them, create groups and help them find the best ones. A facilitator puts all the  workshop elements into specified time periods in the agenda, he plans timing, all the breaks and energizers (short exercises that boost energy). It is always good to send out the agenda before and prepare information about restrictions like no distractions during workshops – phones and laptops shouldn’t be allowed during sessions.

Participants’ relations research

A facilitator never forgets about the participants! He finds out who he needs during the workshop and whose knowledge will be the most useful and valuable. He should accept the role of a psychologist and predict the relations between individual people e.g. identify specific features of participants’ characters or check what their roles at work are because it may influence their behavior (a good example is that managers may be more confident than average workers). If the facilitator organizes bigger workshops with many participants, he should divide them into smaller groups and decide who should work together with whom to make their work more efficient. Of course, every participant should be invited in advance (in case somebody isn’t present, a facilitator can find somebody else in their place) and informed about the date and agenda.

Checking the venue

If the workshop is organized in a place which is well-known to the facilitator, it’s not a problem. When it takes place somewhere else, it’s important to check what  the place looks like and what obstacles the participants and  facilitator may be met with. Nobody wants to sit behind one long table and go out of their way just to hear somebody else from the same group but on the other  side of the table.

Tools and food preparation

Workshops require a lot of office supplies like tons of post-it notes, pens and pencils – anything that helps people  transfer their ideas onto paper. It’s important to provide all the materials – people shouldn’t have to worry about them and will be able to concentrate on working together. Workshops aren’t only work though. People must have a moment to refresh their body and mind, they need to get energy to move on. That’s why a facilitator plans food and beverages (water is always a good choice because it hydrates the body). He should ask all participants about their diet since it’s not uncommon that somebody prefers a vegetarian, gluten-free, or low carb diet for diabetics.

Then, the workshop day arrives. What does it look like? What’s the most common way to conduct workshops, encourage people to generate ideas, and choose the best of the best? I will write all about it in the next two episodes of this “Creative workshops” series.

To be continued…